One punch was not enough. Not enough to put Saracens down for the count.
Only ten short weeks after the Premiership and European champions had been deducted 35 points and fined a whopping £5.36 million, Premiership Rugby (PRL) announced the club had been automatically relegated to the second-tier Championship for the 2020-21 season.
It bore more than a passing resemblance to Apollo Creed, waving his hand and scowling at a fallen Rocky Balboa while telling him to stay down after the umpteenth knockdown. Like Rocky, it is unlikely that the North London club will obey instructions. They will get up off the canvas and they will be back.
Last week, PRL released the report into its findings, and there is a neat precis on the BBC.
Saracens had a stark choice between opening their financial books to public scrutiny or accepting relegation and keeping them closed. Unsurprisingly, they made their apologies through gritted teeth, and swallowed the medicine.
The mix of property co-investments between owner and top players, overspends on image rights, and murky hospitality payments were deemed to be part of salary and therefore counted against the cap, and the breaches were seen to be as obvious in the current season as it had been in the previous three.
The most interesting aspect of the scandal has been the one-two punch by PRL. Even with the original 35-point deduction, Saracens continued to play with the full resources of their playing squad and looked well capable of overtaking their rivals and avoiding relegation.
With the second punch arriving just as the club had propped to one knee and were in the process of getting up, PRL clearly wanted to make a definitive statement. Dropping into the second tier ensures Saracens’ star-studded squad will have to be disbanded, and that there will be no entry into European competition for the club next season – even if they win it in 2019-20. The financial cost will be punitive.
It also brings the ring-fencing of the Premiership one step closer. With Saracens dropping down for probably one season only, all 13 stakeholders in PRL (the 12 clubs plus Newcastle Falcons, currently heading up the Championship and almost certain of promotion) will demand that promotion and relegation be scrapped, once and for all.
The 13 clubs need to guarantee their financial sustainability, and the threat of relegation is one of the main spanners in the works. If you are relegated, you lose players, and you haemorrhage broadcasting and sponsorship money.
The English Premiership is one of only two professional leagues which still have a promotion-relegation system – the other is the Top 14 in France. Newly promoted teams (like London Irish in the 2019-20 season) tend to view the acquisition of top overseas talent as the surest way to preserve their status.
Irish trawled the southern hemisphere for bona fide Test-rated talent when they were promoted in 2019. They picked up Waisake Naholo from New Zealand and no fewer than four Wallaby regulars from the Michael Cheika era – Adam Coleman from the Rebels, and Nick Phipps, Curtis Rona and Sekope Kepu from the Waratahs.
In leagues like Super Rugby and the Pro 14, there is far less need for top imports because the spectre of relegation does not suffocate the participants. Rugby nations like Ireland have the breathing space to develop local talent within their provinces. They can pick and choose one or two overseas players, but that is about the limit.
It is not the same in England or France. In London Irish’s last game against Northampton on Friday evening, 20 of the 46 players in the two squads were from the southern hemisphere, although three were Kiwis naturalised as either Scots (Irish number 7 Blair Cowan) or English (Saints’ Piers Francis and Teimana Harrison). Seventeen of those were full internationals.
Furthermore, 13 of the 23-man London Irish matchday squad were imports, and seven of them were Australians. Apart from Coleman, Phipps, Rona and Kepu, ex-Waratah hooker Dave Porecki, ex-Rebel halfback Ben Meehan and ex-Force prop Ollie Hoskins all featured, and would probably be playing Super Rugby if they were still living in Australia.
One way or another, Aussies dominated the game on the field, too. Playing for Northampton, Taqele Naiyaravoro racked up the highest number of run metres on either side, while Rona engineered two Irish tries (one converted, the other lost to a TMO review). Both Meehan and Phipps were yellow-carded for fouls.
The outstanding tight forwards on view were Australians tinged by the emerald green – hooker Porecki, prop Kepu and second-rower Coleman. All three showed they still had the starch to play very well indeed at the level below Test rugby.
Coleman’s contribution was the most eye-catching. The fewer dynamic shifts of pace and momentum in the north suit his power game far better than Super Rugby, and as a result he was a force in every aspect of the match. He showed every sign of becoming the player everybody thought he could be when he was first picked for the Wallabies back in 2016.
Coleman and a sprightly Kepu thoroughly enjoyed themselves, locking out the right side of the Irish scrum against the Franks brothers in the Saints’ front row:
Coleman starts low, and stays low in the sweet spot behind Kepu, as ‘Keps’ makes a decisive second effort which forces Ben Franks to collapse the scrum on the Northampton loosehead.
Coleman was also a dominant force in the back half of the London Irish defensive lineout, and made it a no-go area for the Saints. Four Northampton throws went astray, and on occasion it looked like Coleman had a psychic connection with the Saints’ hooker!
Adam Coleman also made his mark in the third of the set-pieces, with a neat regather and offload from kick-off setting up an attack near the Northampton 22:
The major change has been in the accurate identification of Coleman’s strength and weaknesses. Way up are the effective contributions on defence, and way down are the explosions of ill-discipline – every Force, Rebels or Wallabies supporter will remember at least one Coleman penalty or yellow card with a sad shake of the head.
Coleman is not viewed as a primary attacking force, but as a turnover king at the set-piece and in close defence. He made 20 tackles in a game where Irish spent the majority of their time defending, and six of those counted as dominant hits:
Notice how Coleman takes a neat shuffle-step to his right to mirror, and therefore stay square, to the runner in the first instance. The impact in the collision is that much harder as a result.
He exploits his forward momentum to squeeze down on the ball-carrier and keep his head close to the ball in the second and third examples. It makes the cleanout more difficult, and that, in turn, means a five- or six-second wait for the halfback at the base.
In the second period, Coleman also had two outstanding double involvements on defence:
First Coleman smashes the Saints’ number 8 back yards and yards in the kick chase, then he gets up in time to lasso Cobus Reinach as he tries to run a wide arc around him on the very next play.
Northampton had no better luck when they tried to run two plays in a row down Coleman’s channel later in the half, with the Irish second-rower avoiding a hook attempt at the ruck (by Saints’ number 18) to press down hard on the next runner and stop the early release of the ball.
It was no more than natural justice at the very end of the game when Coleman blocked down a clearing kick for Dave Porecki to pick up the shrapnel and score the match-winning try, because those two had been the two outstanding tight forwards on the field for the full 80 minutes:
Events in the northern hemisphere over recent weeks have paradoxically offered hope to the game in the south. The direct, two-fisted attack on Saracens by PRL has demonstrated a definite desire to clamp down on the murkier overspends on players in the league.
That tighter grip on finances will mean fewer luxury imports from New Zealand and Australia in particular. With Saracens having to shed players, there is every reason to expect Will Skelton back in time for the 2021 Super Rugby season.
The momentum towards ring-fencing the English Premiership will go hand-in-hand with financial regulation, as the 13 teams demand more breathing space in which to nurture local, sustainable talent without the threat of relegation hanging over them.
By the end of the 2020-2021 season, that move towards ring-fencing may be locked into place as official policy. Theoretically at least, it should free up more established Test players from Australia and New Zealand to continue playing in the southern hemisphere – providing those competitions still exist in a viable form!
In the meantime, there is scope for Australians to develop their careers under the auspices of a fresh coaching viewpoint. Under Les Kiss and Brad Davis at London Irish, there are signs Adam Coleman is becoming the second-rower Wallaby supporters hoped he could be.
There are fewer black spots of indiscipline (he conceded no penalties against Northampton), and the contributions on the defensive side are becoming more substantial in both impact and number – whether it is stealing ball at set-piece or crushing ball-carriers from inside defence.
At both Saracens and London Irish, there appears to be more clarity about the role players like Skelton and Coleman can realistically fulfil. When they finally return, they will be bringing back a little something with them.
In a world of stormy uncertainty, that much is for sure.